E. Coli Outbreak Was Wake-Up Call for Food Safety

Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University, discusses her op-ed that appeared in Sunday's San Jose Mercury News. She argues that the recent outbreak of E. coli-contaminated spinach was both "entirely predictable" and preventable, and explains why it's time for the food-safety system to change.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

Time now for the TALK OF THE NATION Opinion Page. This past summer, almost 200 people got sick, 102 wound up in the hospital and three died after eating raw spinach contaminated with E. coli. The search continues for the exact source of the bacteria, though federal investigators are focusing on a ranch in California, which is just across the road from the plant that packaged the contaminated spinach.

In an op-ed in the Perspective Section of Sunday's San Jose Mercury News, Marion Nestle argues that the outbreak was both entirely predictable and preventable. It's time for the nation's century-old and she says highly dysfunctional food-safety system to change.

We have a link to her op-ed at the TALK OF THE NATION page at npr.org, and we want to hear from you. What are your concerns about the food you put on your table? We'd especially like to hear from farmers and others involved in food processing. The number is 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. You can also send us e-mail: talk@npr.org. Marion Nestle is a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University, and the author of Safe Food and more recently What To Eat. She joins us now by phone from her office at NYU. And it's nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today.

Prof. MARION NESTLE (Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health, New York University; Author): Oh, nice to be here.

CONAN: To begin with, you point out that we're dealing with an especially dangerous strain of E. coli.

Prof. NESTLE: Yeah, it's one of these newly emergent bacterial strains that never caused much trouble before the early 1980s, and its trouble is widely attributed to the increasing concentration of animal agriculture and growing animals together in very large concentrations and feeding them a kind of feed that selects for this particular hardy bacteria that causes so much trouble in people.

CONAN: And not only a hardy bacteria which is difficult to wash off, but a bacteria that causes sickness at very low doses.

Prof. NESTLE: At very low doses, and so what that - unusually low doses. It takes thousands of salmonella to make people sick, and they don't even know what the lowest dose is of the E. coli 015787 that can make people sick, but it's not very many. And what that means is that you can't ever let it get into the food supply in the first place. You have to undertake preventive measures. This has been known for quite a while now, particularly since the early ‘90s when Jack-In-The-Box had a terrible outbreak.

CONAN: In hamburgers.

Prof. NESTLE: In hamburgers. And at that time, it was thought that this was a hamburger problem or a meat problem. But as food safety specialists immediately started pointing out, this is a bacteria that is excreted in animal waste. And anything that comes in contact with animal waste is going to cause problems. And the next really big incident that happened was with the Odwalla apple juice, where some apples had fallen on the ground and been used in the juice and obviously had come in contact with some contaminated manure.

So this incident also has now been traced back to an animal facility that at least is someplace near the growing fields. I'm not sure exactly where it is, but some place where either physical contact or water that ran through the manure got onto the spinach field, somehow contaminated them, and they were not washed off in the packing plant.

CONAN: And indeed, you said the packing plant involved was high-tech as far as these things go, state of the art.

Prof. NESTLE: Extraordinarily high-tech. And it's shocking beyond belief that they didn't wash off. And there are all kinds of theories to account for why they didn't, but one of them is a really complicated one that these very toxic bacteria put out toxins that caused the pores on the bottom of plant leaves not to close so that they can get in around the pores - the stomata they're called - and they're just not washable off. It's not clear what happened.

CONAN: Now it's…

Prof. NESTLE: And that's would - the investigation is looking for that. It's very, very to trace all of it.

CONAN: And several federal agencies are investigating.

Prof. NESTLE: Indeed they are.

CONAN: But who's responsible for policing these farms in the first place?

Prof. NESTLE: Well, that's the dysfunctional part, because there is no farm system of food safety. We don't require standard food safety procedures on any farm except egg farms. That's the single exception. And there's a division between the agencies, so the Food and Drug Administration is responsible for dealing with spinach and other vegetables. The Department of Agriculture is responsible for dealing with animals and animal agriculture.

But this is an incident that occurred across the line from animals to plants, and there is no one agency that overseas that or coordinates food-safety efforts. We have a very fragmented system, and one that was rooted in 1906 in the days of The Jungle - when Upton Sinclair's The Jungle - and really hasn't changed in any fundamental way to keep up with these emerging threats, the food-supply bacteria that nobody ever heard of before.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Let's get some callers involved in the conversation. 800-989-8255, if you'd like to join us. And we'll begin with Kirby, Kirby calling from Indiana.

KIRBY (Caller): Hi, thanks for having me on the show.

CONAN: Sure.

KIRBY: I just want to make a comment. I've had an opportunity to work both at a county level and at a state level - I worked for the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation as a food inspector and with several local counties in Indiana, and I couldn't agree more with what was just said in that things are so fragmented and just not looked after. In Indiana, we have 93 counties that enforce the food code on a local level to inspect restaurants and anything that has to do with consumption of food by the public.

Each county enforces that code independent of the other, and what I've found is that for the most part, it's just something that has to be done and isn't really overseen that closely. The State Department doesn't look at it that closely, and the federal department doesn't look at the state that closely.

In Alaska, they cut all the funding for food safety up there, and a lot of restaurants that church and locals eat at aren't inspected at all anymore.

CONAN: Marion Nestle, is that your experience?

Prof. NESTLE: I think that's just part of the problem. I'm really glad you mentioned all that, because it reminds me to say that the standard way of dealing with food safety is to say okay consumers, it's your problem. You want safe food, you take care of all of the things that you're supposed to do to keep food safe. And in the case of the spinach, that was hard to argue because this was spinach that was eaten raw. And so you couldn't - you know, if people cooked the spinach, then there wouldn't have been any problem. The bacteria would've been killed.

But we have a food-safety system that - we do not have a food-safety system that goes from farm to table. We don't have a coordinated system. It doesn't start on the farm. It starts in some intermediate place along the food chain. And unless we have a food-safety system from farm to table with oversight and accountability, nothing will happen because nobody will do anything voluntarily. They would leave it to…

KIRBY: Nobody gets excited until somebody gets sick.

Prof. NESTLE: Well, even if somebody gets sick, they won't do it. I mean, the FDA has been warning Salinas spinach-growers and lettuce-growers, mostly, since 1998 that this was a disaster waiting to happen, and everybody heard them, but nobody did anything because the FDA has no power over farms. The USDA has no power over farms. And the Government Accountability Office, which is this watchdog agency in government, has been screaming since the late 1980s that we need a coordinated, single food-safety agency that unifies all of the food-safety functions in one agency and covers food safety from farm to table.

CONAN: Kirby, thanks very much for the call.

KIRBY: Thanks very much, appreciate it.

CONAN: We're on the Opinion Page today, speaking with Marion Nestle. And again, if you'd like to read her op-ed, you can go to the TALK OF THE NATION page at npr.org and see her op-ed and all of the other recent op-eds that we featured on this feature. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

CONAN: Let's get another caller in. This is Harold, Harold with us, calling from Iowa.

HAROLD (Caller): Yes.

CONAN: Go ahead, Harold. Yes, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

HAROLD: I'd like to comment that I think that we have the safest food supply in the world. And everybody likes to blast food safety, but the reality is that when you consider all the meals that are taken in and eaten by people in the United States and the number of problems we have, it's so infinitesimally small that any dollar we spent for added food safety is money down the drain. The reality is we should back a lot of the expense for food safety out of the system, put it into areas where it can really have an impact on greater health, such as cancer research and that sort of thing.

CONAN: Marion Nestle, get a reply from you?

Prof. NESTLE: Yeah, Harold, you sound like a statistician. On a statistical basis, food safety may not be a problem, although the Centers for Disease Control says there are 76 million cases of illness, 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths a year. That may not be very many in terms of the total number of eating occasions, but tell that to the parents of that child who dies.

HAROLD: If we want to talk about…

Prof. NESTLE: I don't think they would agree with you at all, particularly when we're dealing with preventable problem.

CONAN: Harold, now go ahead please.

HAROLD: The one thing that - I don't believe they could adequately track all the number of times that people are sick and that it's actually attributed to food. I think there's a lot of other elements in here that…

CONAN: So he doesn't believe your statistics, Marion Nestle.

Prof. NESTLE: Well, those are Centers for Disease Control statistics, and I don't know how good they are. It doesn't matter. There were three deaths from this spinach, and they were preventable deaths. That's the problem that's so upsetting. If we could prevent these problems from happening, we would save a lot of personal grief, even if it isn't a large number, statistically.

CONAN: And in response to this situation after last summer, is Washington taking note, do you think?

Prof. NESTLE: Oh, one would hope so, and there are a senator, and - several senators and members of the House of Representatives have filed a bill to develop one of these unified food-safety agencies, and I hope that bill gets lots of support. It's badly needed.

CONAN: One thing that several callers and e-mailers have suggested is that small, local organic farms - that may be the way to go.

Prof. NESTLE: That may be. It's not that organic farms can't be contaminated, and fortunately, this spinach was not organic spinach. Absolutely not. It was conventionally grown. I mean, it isn't that these problems won't happen on organic farms, except that the rules for dealing with manure are much more stringent for organic than they are for conventionally grown foods. So there's actually less of a chance with organics than there would be for something like this. And if it's locally grown, if it causes harm, it won't cause anywhere near the extent of harm that this particular incident did.

CONAN: Yet locally grown suggests that - well, it causes distribution problems if, you know, - obviously, that's not an option for everybody.

Prof. NESTLE: It's not an option for everybody, but it's certainly something to be considered in a much more serious way than has gotten national attention until now.

CONAN: Marion Nestle, thanks very much for being with us.

Prof. NESTLE: My please.

CONAN: You can read Marion Nestle's op-ed online. We have a link at the TALK OF THE NATION page at npr.org. She's a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University, the author of Safe Food and, more recently, What To Eat, and joined us today from her office at NYU. This is TALK OF THE NATION from National Public Radio News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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